Case Hints – The Case Method


A useful overview of the case method with associated tips.
Subject: Case Work
Source: Jeff Sandefer and Bob Schwartz (Professors, UT Austin)


Entrepreneurship, like life, is messy. It cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas or simple rules. Entrepreneurship is a complex set of interactions between people, markets and technology that is best understood by analogy. The case method provides these analogies by using real business situations to teach ideas, skills and philosophies.

The case method is simply a low cost, low risk way to accelerate intuition. It encourages pattern recognition by exposing students to hundreds of real life situations in a short time. Case teaching uncovers the broad patterns and brings order to the disarray. Students can then apply specific tools to craft coherent strategies and action plans.

Case Learning

Pattern Recognition:

An early challenge in artificial intelligence was to teach computers to play chess. Even with enormous reserves of computing power, computers could not “think” ahead far enough to defeat championship level players. The number of possible moves quickly became too vast. Scientists were puzzled–if computers couldn’t keep up with the possibilities, how could human chess masters consider the incredible number of options during a match?

Researchers soon learned that chess masters do not think in terms of sequential moves. Instead, just as a general might survey a battlefield, they study the patterns formed by pieces on the board. Chess players do not become masters by memorizing techniques or rigid strategies; they become masters by playing chess. They play for hours at a time, year after year, until they have seen enough patterns to make the right decision.

Becoming a successful entrepreneur is analogous to becoming a chess master. You must consciously or intuitively recognize patterns in a situation and then adjust your strategy as people and context change. There is never a “right” answer that will guarantee success but there are strategies that increase the probability of success and minimize the costs of failure.

The Role of Analysis and Logic:

Pattern recognition is not a substitute for rigorous logic and analysis. Chess players do not become masters based on whims. Patterns will not emerge until the “facts” have been determined to be facts, the relevant has been separated from the irrelevant, and the right questions have been asked (answers come later).

Cases, like real world situations, may have too much information, too little information, or even conflicting data. Often, the available data have enough uncertainty to justify several contradictory decisions. Students must first collect, sift and weigh data before deciding what data to use.

The problem then can be divided into manageable parts. Trends and conflicts can be used to uncover new questions. Financial analysis and logic can be applied to solve discrete pieces of the puzzle. The deepest insights occur when a student compares and contrasts products and situations from a customer’s point of view. Once the pieces have been solved, the puzzle can be assembled and the search for patterns can begin.

The lesson is clear. In case learning and life, events seem disordered and random. This clutter seems impossible to decipher at the time, but analysis, perspective and distance often reveal patterns in the chaos. Things usually happen for a reason, often for many reasons, but seldom solely by chance.

Difference from Lectures:

Case teaching, because it is disorderly, places heavy demands on teachers and students. Identifying patterns is hard work. Unlike lecturers, case professors are not experts who merely dispense truth. Case teachers act as guides; working with students to explore, examine and often discard options. Progress is unpredictable, erratic and often frustrating, but case learning forces students to think, not merely absorb and regurgitate facts.


Individual Preparation:

Students should first quickly skim a case to get a feel for the company, the people and the situation. A second reading should concentrate on the facts of the case, keeping in mind the objectives of the course, the position of this case in the syllabus, the supplementary readings and the course frameworks. Read between the lines. Question the motives and opinions of the participants. Ask “Why?” again and again.

The appendices should be analyzed looking for trends or facts that support a particular solution. Just as in real business situations, you seldom have all the data you need. A lack of data is not an excuse for avoiding a decision. Make the best assumptions you can and be prepared to defend them.

The “Study Guide” questions are to stimulate your curiosity. Answering the questions is not sufficient preparation for class. Preparing solely for these questions is not enough to open. Instead, the student should put themselves in the place of the protagonist and answer the following:

  1. What problems or opportunities does the protagonist face? Often the real problem or opportunity is not obvious.
  2. What is the solution or recommended course of action? You must take a firm stand. The more specific the answer the better.
  3. What is the analysis that lead to this recommendation? This analysis should be simple, logical and be based on numerical evidence. When data are not available, make logical assumptions and be prepared to justify them.
  4. How will we carry out the plan? The action plan should include detailed steps and when they should be taken. The plan should consider the power and re-sources of the protagonist or company and the time available. It should consider what could go wrong and provide a contingency plan.

Group Preparation:

Study groups are optional but highly recommended. Study groups should be large enough to provide diversity and small enough to encourage participation. Four or five people generally work best; including people with different technical skills (engineers, accountants, business majors and liberal arts majors) and dissimilar work backgrounds helps the group approach situations from several different perspectives.

A meeting time an hour or so before class seems to be ideal. Groups that meet the night before often get bogged down discussing minor points and waste time. Each individual should come to study group prepared to open the case. Members should then take turns presenting and defending their points of view.

In essence, study groups are an informal dress rehearsal for class. They give students a chance to compare notes and check numbers. It is impossible to open a class if you only read the case and listen to your group. Trust me, it has been tried and has failed many times. If you are uncomfortable with your first group, find another. It is not uncommon for people to shift from one study group to another during the semester.

The Classroom

The Opening:

A student will be selected at random to open each class. The opening is the foundation for each case discussion. It provides a framework for the class and sets the tone for the case. The person chosen to open should answer the question I ask, take a firm stand, use the frameworks to lay a foundation, propose a solution or strategy, lay out an analysis to justify the decision and provide an action plan to carry out the proposal.

An opening is not a list of case facts. Everyone in class should already know every case fact. An opening is a recommendation of a course of action and the analysis to defend that choice.

Openings can last for five to twenty minutes. Length is not important as long as a logical and broad foundation has been provided using Industry Analysis, FIT or an original framework.

Some suggestions:

  1. Broad openings are better than narrow. No matter how narrow the opening question, it is better to go through the frameworks and touch on the major issues facing the protagonist and company before settling on one point. Be sure to clearly address the key success factors for the company. This provides the class with a firm foundation on which to build.
  2. Clearly and concisely state the problem. It may not be obvious.
  3. Take a stand. Choose one side of the argument and defend it. Before you address other options and give reasons for dismissing them, make your position clear and resolute.
  4. Provide analysis, both logic and numbers, that back your position.
  5. Have an action plan ready. Keep in mind what the protagonist can realistically accomplish given time constraints and limits on his or her power and resources.
  6. If you do not have enough information to make a decision, read between the lines. Infer. Make logical assumptions. State and defend your assumptions.

If you are still concerned about how to open, approach one of the TA’s for help .

The Body of Discussion:

Students can support the classmate who opened, expand further on his or her comments or disagree entirely. The key to a lively and productive discussion is to conduct it as a rigorous conversation. To have a conversation, you must listen to the person talking and respond, not just wait until its your turn to spew out a prepared comment. For a discussion to be rigorous, you must be prepared to aggressively challenge the assumptions, analysis and comments of others. In turn, you must be prepared to have your own views examined.

Quality comments are usually concise and supported by logic and analysis. Comments should fit with or build on previous comments and not bounce from one subject to another. Listen to other people’s remarks and respond. Students should feel free to compare the current case with examples from their own experience or with previous cases.

The role of a case instructor is not to lecture, but to gently direct the flow of the discussion. The instructor should not pontificate but rather clarify, restate and organize comments made by the students. The instructor should insist that students remain on an issue until it has been adequately explored, but nudge the class forward before the topic becomes stale. Comments should be held up for all the students to see, and timed so that each facet can be explored. The chalkboard should be used to capture and organize individual comments for further study and discussion.

The Summary:

Occasionally the case teacher will ask students to summarize the discussion. At other times, the teacher will summarize the key points of the discussion and relate them to previous cases or the framework of the course. Seldom will the outcome of the case be revealed. The real life outcome of the case is not important–chance plays too large a role to draw conclusions after the fact. Often the worst decisions will turn out well because of unforeseen circumstances. Such is life.


The case method is a simulation for business in the real world. It is a synthesis of analytical techniques, people skills and common sense. Above all, it is a way for students to learn from many real life situations. The patterns are powerful and moving, they should be closely observed and cataloged in the conscious and subconscious. The next time they appear, the stakes will be all too real: money, careers, businesses and lives.

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